'Citra Mina ignored my family's cry for help'
MANILA, Philippines – For 3 straight months, 27-year-old Harry Redoble would be with dozens other men of General Santos City in a fishing expedition interrupted only by a two-week break he spends with family.
He does this even if it means being with his wife Manelyn less often, believing the set-up yields better prospects for the future of their two sons. Justin Jay is now 10 years old, and John Mark a year younger.
Often, he catches 30-40 tuna fishes in a single 3-month expedition. This means an income of P20,000 to P25,000 per trip, minus his salary advances.
His catch – along with the catch of fishing boat Love Merben 2's 42 other crew members – are for export. These are often sashimi-grade and marketed as the "best catch in the world."
For Redoble, a typical work day with the fishing crew means hopping from their mother vessel that sailed to sea, to a smaller boat they call pakura.
In each pakura, fishermen like Redoble catch tuna near a fish aggregating device locally known as payao.
But on August 26, his typical work day turned into a nightmare, as Indonesian authorities seized their mother boat for illegally entering Indonesian waters and arrested each of them. Love Merben 2 had an alleged expired fishing permit.
"I was really afraid, because I had no documents," he told Rappler in the vernacular.
Redoble was detained in Ternate Island, Indonesia, away from family and without income for half a year. His comfort came from knowing he was not alone.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Jesus Yabes said a report reached him that there are around a hundred Filipino fishermen detained in Ternate, where the predominantly Muslim nation's immigration office is.
Advocates believe the numbers are underreported. National labor center Sentro secretary general Josua Mata believes Indonesia recently seized 3 more boats owned by local fishing operators.
The Philippines-Indonesia border is a common fishing ground for Filipino fishermen from General Santos, the country's tuna capital. The border has an abundance of yellowfin tuna.
Child in need of medical care
Redoble has always been a fisherman and has been the family's breadwinner, but he said he started working for tuna exporting giant Citra Mina only two years ago.
"Pag marami na kami deposit na isda kay Jake Lu, tsaka pa kami maka-advance sa pagkain ng pamilya (When we already have deposited fish stocks with Jake Lu, that's only when we can get salary advances to feed our family)," he told Rappler in an interview.
He was pertaining to Joaquin Lu, incorporator of Citra Mina Aqua Culture Corporation.
With Redoble not earning anything during his 6-month detention, his wife went to and appealed for cash in the Citra Mina office. His eldest son Justin Jay was suffering from a flu, and there was no money to buy rice.
But their request was turned down by management, he said.
"Noong nagkasakit 'yung aking anak, hindi talaga kami tinulungan. Hindi kami pinautang kahit piso... Meron naman kaming deposit na isda sa Citra Mina," he added, eyes welling up with tears.
(When my son got sick, they didn't help us. They didn't let us borrow money, even if we have existing deposited fish stocks at Citra Mina.)
Redoble said the hardest part of his detention was whenever Manelyn called on the phone to let him know of their needs, and he couldn't give them anything.
"Masakit...Hindi ko maintindihan...Parang wala ako sa sarili (It hurt… I couldn't understand… It was like I was out of my mind)," said Redoble, who spent Christmas and New Year missing the frequent fights of his two sons over toys he buys them with the little money he makes.
'Not our employees'
On February 24, workers onboard Love Merben 2, including Redoble, were able to arrive safely in their homes in General Santos City.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) arranged for their repatriation, vowing to bill Citra Mina for the government expenses.
In an interview with Rappler, Citra Mina spokesperson Fred Lumba denied any employer-employee relationship between the company and the workers of Love Merben 2.
Love Merben 2 was owned by Citra Mina's long-time fish supplier Felisa Ave, Lumba said. "Sa totoo lang, dahil wala ngang employer-employee relationship, wala kaming responsibility," he explained. (The truth is, because there is no employer-employee relationship, we have no responsibility.)
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Sentro had alleged that Citra Mina was merely using Felisa Ave as a dummy, shown by her financial incapacity to act as supplier. Citra Mina finances Love Merben 2 and directly deals with the workers, it said.
Redoble and his fellow fishermen say it is Citra Mina management that pays them directly and gives them money before heading to sea. Citra Mina ships also fetch from their mother vessel their catch every now and then during their 3-month fishing operations, he added.
Under what is called a "cabo" system, Sentro's Mata explained that fishing firms use dummies to deny an employer-employee relationship and evade a law-mandated provision of workers' benefits.
He alleged that Citra Mina knowingly sent an illegal fishing expedition and must compensate the arrested workers accordingly.
'Necessary and desirable' work
Mata said fishermen like Redoble are still likely to return to their work, despite their experience in jail and now the denial of Citra Mina of any responsibility to compensate them for their arrest.
Redoble himself recalled his first pay from Citra Mina. "Dahil first time ko, nabigla ako. First time ko na naka-receive ng P25,000 (Because it was my first time, I was shocked. It was my first time to have ever received P25,000)," he said.
Yet Redoble currently does not enjoy full protection under the law granted to regular workers of a company.
Company regulars are defined by the Labor Code as those who have rendered more than 6 months of work that is "necessary and desirable" in the ordinary course of a company's operations.
"Citra Mina is a tuna exporting firm. How can it exist without tuna?" asked Mata rhetorically. – Rappler.com